Why do we talk about mental health?

And why we should call it mental fitness

The title of my article may look a little controversial. If you’re thinking “what does he mean by that?”, it means I achieved my goal.

The expression mental health and the language used when people talk about it makes me want to roll my eyes. Don’t get me wrong, I am very happy that finally people do talk about this theme openly and it’s not seen as a taboo anymore.

However, in the collective imagination mental health is still something that relates to people who have problems and need support, whereas I strongly believe that everyone should invest in their emotional-selves without waiting to have problems and need support.

In this post, I am going to share with you my views on the topic.

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Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

As human beings, we are all made of a physical and tangible side, our bodies made of flesh, and a less tangible one. Depending on whether you’re religious or not, you may call that soul, psyche, spirit, mind or other different things. Regardless of the name, that is the part of yourself that is capable of thoughts and emotions.

…seeing a therapist should be exactly like going to the gym

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Photo by Risen Wang on Unsplash

In our modern society, especially Western society, we’re literally obsessed with our bodies. We invest so much time and energy in getting fit and being in good shape. We go to the gym, we try to eat healthy, and we even spend money to improve our bodies via surgery.

On the other hand, though, we look after our other side, our emotional side, only when we’re struggling. When we have some trauma, when we’re depressed, when we feel anxiety, when we have paranoia, when we are stressed and so on. Hence, the expression mental health.

Luckily today there are so many ways to look after your emotional-self. For example, you could decide to go to therapy, you could join a meditation or mindfulness class or you could read some of the great books available on the topic. To me seeing a therapist, or doing one of these activities, should be exactly like going to the gym. Imagine a world where people only go to the gym to do physiotherapy and recover from an injury, imagine how many unhealthy people we would have around us.

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Photo by Jared Rice on Unsplash

We should not call it mental health, we should call it mental fitness

In my opinion, the language used around mental health is fundamentally misleading. When we talk about mental health, we always talk about people with problems. We always say that it’s OK not to be OK, and we should reach out and be open when we have mental health issues. Obviously, this is great, but it creates a mental barrier. This is basically saying “you can reach out, get curious about your emotions and see someone, only if you admit you have problems”. I experienced this directly. I spent my whole life considering therapy as something I didn’t need because I was just fine. I wasn’t sick. I had to get traumatised for almost being involved in a terrorist attack to finally give myself the permission to go to therapy. This is not OK. We should not call it mental health, we should call it mental fitness.

…emotional intelligence should be taught in school

My question is “why do we invest so much time and energy in our bodies, but we completely neglect our minds?” Getting curious and learning about yourself and your emotions is an invaluable opportunity for personal growth. It’s an investment in yourself. Honestly, I strongly believe emotional intelligence should be taught in school. We should get used to the language of emotions when we are kids. How can we understand what’s going on inside ourselves, if we can’t even name it? As a consequence, for example, so many people end up feeling angry because they cannot recognise what’s actually causing their emotional pain.

In her book Dare to Lead, Brené Brown talks about emotional literacy. In her words, “in a world of emotional literacy, we would be able to recognise and name between 30 and 40 emotions in ourselves and others”¹.

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Photo by Jackson Simmer on Unsplash

She also provides a very powerful metaphor. Imagine going to the doctor with an excruciating pain in your right shoulder but with duct tape over your mouth and your hands tied behind your back. The doctor really wants to help out but you can only say mmph mmph and can’t even point to your shoulder either, so the doctor eventually gives up. This is exactly what happens when we’re in emotional distress and are unable to name and recognise what we’re experiencing. Under these circumstances accepting, processing and learning from your emotions becomes impossible.

Like Susan David writes in her book Emotional Agility, “Emotions are data, not directives. We own our emotions, they don’t own us”². Without emotional literacy, we can only be controlled by our emotions.

With this post, I am hoping to provide a different perspective to a very popular topic these days, like mental health.

I’ve explained to you why I believe we should rethink our way of talking about mental health, rename it mental fitness and invest way more than we currently do into it.

Ultimately by investing in our mental fitness, we are investing in becoming better parents, better leaders, better partners, better friends, better colleagues, better people in general.

Please feel free to use the comment section to share your opinions on this topic.

Written by

Passionate engineering manager with a strong technical background and a genuine interest in Agile leadership and Lean principles. Musician as a hobby.

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